I’ve never spent April in Paris (yet), but I did spend a few days there in September once. It’s funny how our dreams of romance and the excitement of falling in love never quite match up with reality. So, too, with my first experience meeting the City of Love. It wasn’t all strolls in the park and near empty museums awaiting my discerning gaze. There wasn’t a lit-up Tour d’Eiffel behind every café, nor did the cafés all come with perfect little reprieves from the hustle and bustle of the streets.
In reality, Paris was just another city. The architecture was lovely in many areas, crumbling in others. The streets were crowded with people, and the trains didn’t always arrive on time (not to mention all the stairs!) Visiting this beautiful historic city did not unburden me from the worries of my life, and in fact the very trip added some. My travel partner lost her passport to a pickpocket on the train. The remaining hope I had of my eyesight stabilizing in a place where I could still drive entirely eroded with the dry air of travel and the increasing inflammation of new pollens and allergens hitting my system for the first time.
Visiting Paris, much like falling in love, was not pittoresque. I had dreamed of that city since I was a little girl the way many other little girls dream of their wedding day. I envisioned wearing a beret as I sat at a café eating a buttered baguette. I imagined myself wandering the Louvre and the Tuileries garden, hiking to the top of the Eiffel Tower and dancing next to the Seine the way Debra Winger and Billy Crystal did in Forget Paris. These are the experiences my deeply romantic heart dreamed up. But, when it came time to visit the tower, we didn’t want to wait in line. It was, as I had been warned, smaller in person. The Louvre was closed for filming, and flowers in le jardin de Tuileries were no longer blooming.
No, the visit was probably pretty mundane from an objective standpoint. But, to me, it was magical. I made it magical. The way we all make the most simple things magical when we want to believe in the grandiose. The way a 10 year old chooses to keep writing to Santa despite all the evidence against his existence. The way tiny dogs gaze longingly at your sandwich with such hope, even if you’ve explicitly told them you’re eating the whole thing yourself. The way so many people continue to recite vows of devotion, steadfastness, and loyalty though it is impossible for any of us to truly be perfect to one another. We hope for the best. We choose to see the magic.
My two favorite moments from my time in Paris were sipping on an espresso watching the world float by and about three minutes when I was truly lost and alone there. The food everywhere was delicious, and definitely a high point. I felt honored to explore the catacombs and visit with the beautiful dead holding up their beloved city. But these two moments felt perfect. In the first, I felt almost at home. I sat several mornings with my travel companion with a tiny cup and a croissant, just gazing out at the beautiful city throbbing with life. This is how I live most of my life, watching on as others rush by, taking it all in. It felt comfortable, familiar. I’ve recreated that feeling in my own city several times, allowing that visitor-spectator feeling to seep into my bones and nourish me for the day.
This other moment, though, happened unexpectedly. I wasn’t planning for it the way I had everything else. And while being lost is certainly familiar for a vision impaired person living in Atlanta where all the streets have similar names and are laid out in a thoroughly unhelpful way, this was a new city. I had no cell service, no wifi, and only a passing knowledge of the language. It happened when I wanted to wander the block where we were staying on our last night in Paris. I figured I could make a wide circle and come back to our small, hidden flat behind a porn shop. With all the neon lights, I didn’t think it would difficult to find my way back. But, new exciting places have a way of swallowing me up. I get lost in the dizzying adventure of it all—staring at the treetops and intricate roofs along the skyline, peering into shop windows and down alleyways. One second, I was perfectly content to wander off into the sunset, and the next, I realized I had forgotten my steps and left no breadcrumbs. Sure, I could probably find a Starbucks, but I could also find a sinister stranger. I was more than a little nervous. My stomach twisted, and I swallowed a sob as the seconds ticked by and I tried to find something familiar. I was lost and alone and afraid. The beautiful city suddenly seemed too big, the streets too narrow, the people too cold and full of potential danger.
When I ask friends what it felt like for them to fall in love with their person, they’ll tell me sweet stories and share words like “fairytale,” “incredible,” “comfortable,” and “relief.” Yet, for me, falling in love has always felt like, well, falling. Down a dark, cold, clammy well and into Alice’s Wonderland. I am awed and excited, yes, but also seemingly on the verge of a panic attack for days on end. It is this strange mix of wonderful and terrifying that I don’t ever really see depicted in the movies. In films, even the most neurotic woman finds a fairytale ending. A Disney fairytale ending, not the Grimm versions that I always seem to conjure up in my imagination when I think of love. For those of us for whom secure attachment is a hard-won journey rather than the norm, love and magic can be just as fraught with danger and fear—because that’s the only version of love we were taught.
After a few minutes of wandering, I did find a street that looked familiar. I retraced my steps and stumbled back to the strip of neon lights that marked our interesting little borrowed corner of the world, and I stepped back into a space that felt relatively safe. I let the relief wash over me and promised myself no more solitary trips on this, our last day. And yet, that moment of terror—that realization that finally I was separated from all the things I knew and found comfort in—that was also part of the magic. I was fearful in the moment, but I wouldn’t take back that hour of wandering and the amazing things I saw, the rush of newness and beauty and pure freedom.
For many, I think love is probably rather mundane. It is the city like all other cities that we choose to see as special. It is the comfort of finding a familiar street, someone with whom conversation comes easily. We will meet so many people in our lives, visit many different, yet similar cities. And yet, we chose to find magic in one. Paris wasn’t perfect, like no love is perfect. I felt afraid there. I missed out on other opportunities in being there. I spent far too much money on a single taxi ride there. And yet, I choose to remember the golden hour light as it danced across the vibrant autumn leaves. I choose to cherish every bite from the first pain au chocolat to the last coq au vin. I choose to keep dreaming of the day when I will visit those streets again and feel the rush renewed. Like most of us, I choose to remember the magic.